Braided Challah with Poppy Seeds and Lemon

Meal: The Reapers' Meal

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Braided Challah with Poppy Seeds and Lemon

In that the bread offering is one of the few biblical rites for Shavuot, a special emphasis is placed on the making and eating of challah. Usually, each family prepares two loaves. Here's an excellent recipe to start the meal off on the right foot.

  • 2 packages dried yeast
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¼ cup lukewarm water
  • ½ tsp. saffron
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups warm milk
  • 5 cups sifted flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 4 tsp. poppy seeds
  • 1 tsp. lemon juice

Combine the yeast, 2 tsp. of sugar, water, and saffron. Let stand 5–7 minutes.

Mix the eggs, oil, and milk in a large bowl. Slowly stir in the yeast mixture. Sift the flour, add salt, and combine with other ingredients in bowl. Knead on a floured surface until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes or so. Grease a separate large bowl, and place the dough inside, working it so that it is covered with a thin, oily glaze all over. Cover with a towel, set in a warm place, and let rise for 1 hour, or until about doubled in bulk.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Turn the dough onto a floured board and divide it into three equal parts. Punch down and knead again. Using extra flour on your hands, roll the dough into six strips of even length. Braid 2 sets of 3 braids together (for 2 loaves) and place them on separate greased baking sheets. Brush the loaves with a bit of egg yolk and sprinkle with poppy seeds and ½ tsp. lemon juice each.

Bake for 30–35 minutes or until lightly browned. (Each loaf should sound hollow when tapped.) Cool on wire racks.

For a little variety, you can add cinnamon or dried cranberries (or both) to the egg/milk mixture when making the dough. It's really quite good.

Yield: 10–12 servings

The Text

14 At mealtime Boaz said to Ruth, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar.” When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over.

15 As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Even if she gathers among the sheaves, don't embarrass her.

16 “Rather, pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don't rebuke her.”

Ruth 2:14–16, New International Version—United Kingdom

Biblical Passage Notes

The Book of Ruth, from which this text is taken, is one of the few books in the Bible named for a woman. It is an important book for several reasons. First, it shows that at various times throughout its history, Israel did tolerate, and was quite friendly to, marriage outside of its strict laws. Ruth is also an important figure because it is through her lineage that St. Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus back to Abraham through her great-grandson David, demonstrating that Jesus was both a righteous heir of the Covenant and of royal stock, worthy to be called a “king.” And there are other reasons the book is seen to be one of the real jewels of the Bible. It is a simple tale, beautifully told; some feminists hold it in high regard for its portrayal of Naomi and Ruth as strong, resolute women, surviving against great odds. Historically speaking, it gives us a glimpse of the daily agricultural life of Israel at the time of the Judges, before the monarchy established by Saul, David, Solomon, and their heirs. And it shows the intricate workings of Jewish family law regarding the custom of Levirate marriage.2

The Preparation

In the three verses that we have here lifted out of the story of Ruth, we encounter her at a noontime meal. She was invited by Boaz to partake of the reapers' lunch, which is very unusual on several fronts. First, Jews did not routinely sit down with Gentiles for meals; though hospitality did dictate that one should offer food to strangers,3 there were proscriptions against eating at the same table with those outside of the Jewish faith. Second, Jewish men did not sit at table with women; women might serve the meal, but rarely if ever was it served to them. Boaz was proving himself to be a man of unique sensitivities.

Ruth was told to dip her bread in wine vinegar (in Hebrew, chomets), a sour concoction often made from unripe grapes, which commentators tell us was a typical reapers' repast. (Bread [in Hebrew, lechem], as used here, is a broad term, meaning not only some grain product, but food in general [sustenance], whatever form it might take.) Boaz also offered her roasted grain (the KJV says “parched corn,” though corn as we know it did not exist in the Middle East at that time).

Again, we learn a useful tidbit here about the cooking preparations of the biblical era. According to author Daniel Cutler, “raw ears of grain could be made more palatable by roasting or “parching” them.”

The heat also breaks down the starches and makes the cereal more digestible. Parching was accomplished in two ways. One was simply to hold the stalks in a flame for a few moments. This was an especially convenient meal in the fields and probably constituted the lunch Ruth and Boaz shared during the barley harvest.4

The meal was apparently sufficiently filling, and gratefully eaten. Ruth even had grain to spare. And to boot, she was allowed to go back to the fields and glean more, a further generosity. Boaz went so far as to give his men instructions to drop some of the fruits of their hard work on the ground so that Ruth might pick them up without having to go and cut the barley in the field herself. They were probably willing to do so, in exchange for some favor or another from Ruth; but Boaz strongly advised them not to harass her, to let her be. In other words, the boss has his eye on her, so treat her well, if you know what is good for you!

But what of these “sheaves” Ruth was collecting? Just what is a sheaf? In modern parlance, a sheaf is a long leaf of some grain, such as wheat or barley. The Hebrew word is omer, which is also an ancient measure, being one-tenth of an ephah (see Appendix A). The biblical text reveals yet another bit of historical knowledge, namely that barley was so precious in ancient times that it was measured and used as collateral in trade.

So Ruth ended the day with a bounty much greater than she could have anticipated. She rushed back to Naomi to share her good fortune, and together they discussed what such providence could possibly mean. Naomi, wise in years, intuited Boaz” interest, and sent Ruth back at night with a mission, i.e., to let Boaz know of Ruth's availability. The plan worked, and Boaz made Ruth his bride, in a marriage in which, we suspect, her "salad days" were finally over.

The story of Ruth and Boaz in the Jewish tradition is closely linked to the festival of Shavuot, as it takes place during the time of the harvest. With this in mind, many of the recipes that follow are those used during the celebration of Shavuot.

The History

Ruth was a Moabitess, a non-Jewish native from a country located between Edom and Ammon, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, in what is modern-day Jordan. She and her sister, Orpah, married Israelite men who during a time of famine went with their parents to settle in Moab; the men died very early in their marriages. Their mother, a widow named Naomi, decided to return to Bethlehem, and she entreated her daughters-in-law to return to their own families. Orpah relented; but Ruth insisted that she not be separated yet again from loved ones, begging her mother-in-law to allow that they travel on together: “Where you go I will go,” Ruth said to Naomi. “And


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“As Ruth got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, “Even if she gathers among the sheaves, don't embarrass her. Rather, pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up.” ”

where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Naomi agreed.

When the two widows arrived in Bethlehem, Ruth (whose name derives from an ancient Syrian word that means “woman companion” or “friend”)1 had to find a way to set up a life for herself (women could not inherit property; because she had no children, there were not many options open to her). With the help of Naomi, she secured a place in the grain fields owned by a relative of her dead husband, a kind man by the name of Boaz (Hebrew for “fleet; strength”). Impressed by her loyalties, despite the hardships they had imposed, Boaz invited Ruth to glean the barley fields as an act of charity, and he gave her shelter, food, and extra attention. In the end, they were married (after some legal maneuvering), and Ruth had a son, Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who in turn was the father of King David.